Forging Paths of Integrity (with Minor Update)

There has been a lot of talk online lately about the Pagan (or neopagan, if you prefer) community* and integrity, or lack thereof.

Stuff about “fakelore” traditions and lineages: pretense of ancient roots that aren’t, and people using this pretense to dangle “ancient secrets” before naive seekers to leverage sexual favors .  Stuff about lousy sexual boundaries, harassment and assault**; particularly, the usage of status and power (such as the power to approve or disapprove elevation to higher “degrees of initiation”) to extort sex, money or power.

I’ve written about some of these issues before. They are real. They go to the origins of modern witchcraft’s practices and culture with some decidedly kinky Brits, and their flourishing in the self-indulgent counterculture of the 1960s.

And the Pagan community struggles with them. More, I think, than the atheist community does, because of the Pagan community’s early roots in the Sixties counterculture, but the atheists have their problems too.

As someone who came into the Pagan community through the Church of All Worlds, which has historically had a culture very much in keeping with that unboundaried Sixties-style sexual free-for-all, I have seen this close up, and I’m guilty of having played along at times, thinking at the time that this was “normal” in that context. I have seen and experienced creepy and predatory behavior (by both men and women) in that community, and have heard reports of much worse. This figured heavily in why I left CAW in the late 1990s***.

I think every community that allows people to become the objects of cults of personality is destined to experience abuses of power. That’s why Atheopaganism as we are creating it has no priesthood, no hierarchy of degrees. It’s not a guarantee that there will be no abuse, but it’s a hedge against it. Atheopaganism is a collaborative venture: we’re doing it together. We have no priest/esses, no “teachers”.

It’s also helpful, I think, that we make no claim that what we are doing is a centuries-old (or even decades-old) tradition. Ours is a new path, a modern way based in current understanding of science and age-old ritual and religious techniques . We borrow from no particular culture, but from the accumulated tool kit of humanity itself. We kicked off in 2009. So: no “ancient secrets” that can be “revealed” by a self-styled “teacher”.

Just because something is old doesn’t make it valid. And just because something is young doesn’t make it inconsequential.

I think it’s a bit silly that people claim long histories for their traditions when they are instead products of the 20th century. But there’s not a tremendous amount of harm there except insofar as they use such claims to assert “authority” or “superiority” over others, or use the prospect of learning “ancient lore” as bait to leverage sex, money or obedience.

On the other hand, I think the broader Pagan community has some serious soul-searching to do around sexual behavior and culture.

I have many dear friends in the Pagan community. There are lovely, amazing people there. But I have also seen people in that community—generally, high-status people with power and influence—abuse their standing in myriad ways. It seems that being a big fish in a small pond just creates too much temptation on the part of many…particularly if they can rationalize their behavior with supernatural explanations. And the tone that is set by the common belief that Pagans are up for a sexual free-for-all means that countless instances of inappropriate behavior ranging from annoyance to harassment to outright assault happen in the community. It makes us a magnet and a hunting ground for predators and creeps.

It is my hope that this is reducing as awareness of consent issues and the #MeToo movement gain traction, but frankly, predators aren’t going to change. We need to root them out.

We have to work at this; it won’t just happen on its own.

I hope that is happening now. Certainly there are some newer voices that are much more sane than those of prior generations, and much more aware of issues of respect, integrity, and boundaries.

But I think there are some key recommendations we can derive from the problems we have inherited from the past:

  • The Pagan community needs a broadly adopted Community Statement on Sexual Abuse, Etiquette and Ethics. There was an attempt to create one a few years ago, and it fell apart when some who like things as they are now protested. It is long past time for those complaints to be rejected as apologetics for a culture that indulges abuse. No one likes “rules”, but we need some. The statement could be endorsed not only by organizations, covens, and paths, but by festivals and conferences. [UPDATE: HERE is Brendan Myers’ report on what happened to the first attempt at creating such a statement. It’s not pretty]
  • We must end sexual initiation, and festivals should disinvite those leaders who won’t. Just stop it. It’s unnecessary and it leads to many abuses. It doesn’t matter if it’s part of a “tradition”. So was strangling people and sinking them in peat bogs.
  • We must desexualize Pagan events. That means keeping sexual behavior (other than symbolic actions, like planting a Maypole in the ground) out of open rituals and ensuring that any sexually explicit or skyclad activities are private, adult, and by invitation only. That’s the only way to keep creepers out and only allow consenting participants in. Say it with me: privacy is not the same thing as shame.
  • We must teach consent culture and boundaries at every event, have written conduct standards prominently provided to participants, and require in practice that they be followed by everyone, no matter how revered. To their credit, some events like Pantheacon are already doing this.****
  • We must teach our communities about leadership. People who understand leadership know unleaderlike behavior when they see it. Real leadership doesn’t exploit, doesn’t extort. Real leadership is transparent about money and decision making, and admits when it makes mistakes. And it doesn’t demand, cajole or bargain for sex for any reason.

And why, after all, should we do these things? When confronted with these issues, why not just quit, practice as a solitary (as so many do) or seek (as I have done) to find a corner of the community with a more conscious culture?

Well, I’ll tell you why. Because as frustrating as the Pagan community can be, it can also be wonderful. It can be amazing. Much of it stands for reverence for the Earth, which the world desperately needs now. And by and large, it is made up of people seeking to be the best people they can be. It is a tragedy and a travesty that such abuses take place among people who are so worthy. 

I’m sure there are other lessons I’m missing. But if we were to adopt these, things would get a lot cleaner and safer in Pagandom.

May it be so.


*Setting aside the question of terminology and what that “community” really means in detail, as it is a aggregation of many different paths, perspectives and practices.

** This is long, but well worth taking the time to read in its entirety.

*** I understand there is now an initiative to transform that subculture, and I applaud the effort.

****For an example of such policies, see the Atheopagan Event Planning Guide.

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Reflections on the FFRF Conference 2018

So…the Freedom From Religion Foundation conference was…interesting.

It’s a great organization. Lobbying and legal work to prevent religious incursion into governmental and public spaces. Very important stuff.

I got the sense that most of the attendees felt a deep relief at being in a place where they could admit their atheism. And that seemed to be the end-all-and be-all of the conference’s message: we’re atheists, and that’s good.

Presenters were stellar (Salman Rushdie!) And their points about the deep wrong of theocracy and enforced religiosity–even to the tragic murders and forcible exilings of nonreligious people in the Islamic world–were powerful.

That said, it seemed so passive: people sitting in chairs, listening.

I couldn’t help but compare to Pantheacon, with its interactive workshops and participatory rituals, its parties and laughter.

The Freethought (atheist) community is good at thinking. It’s good at being rational and thoughtful and liberal-minded. At being serious.

But it’s not very good at creating community.

The Pagan community writ large often isn’t very good at thinking, frankly. It draws conclusions about the nature of reality based on wishful thinking, confirmation bias and purely subjective experience, and then doesn’t interrogate those conclusions, choosing instead to protect and defend them.

But it is great at creating shared love. At bringing people together in a sense of broadly shared values and causes.

Here, we’re working to wed those strengths: to create rich spiritual practices rooted in life-affirming values, contextualized in a solidly reality-based understanding of the nature of the Universe.

It’s quite strange, having a foot in each world, viewed a little askance by both. But as I experience each, I can tell that each has something powerful and essential to offer.

Thank you for being a part of our collective efforts to bring them together.

 

Thanks to anonymous donors for the opportunity to attend the 2018 Freedom From Religion Foundation conference!

Paganism, Gothic Aesthetic, and the Sensibility of Darkness: An Observation

‘Tis the season, so let’s talk about it: it’s a thing, among us Pagans.

Cemeteries, bones, skulls, ravens. Vampires and absinthe and Ye Olde Occulte Symboles.

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Dark. Spooky. Sexy.

It scares some people. Particularly non-Pagan, white-light-obsessed Christians and New Age folks.

At this time of year, the Pagan community leaps with particular gusto into the seasonal enthusiasm for skulls and graves and blood. Much of this is because our paths, rather than phobically avoiding the subject of death, actually embrace it as a necessary and inevitable part of the human story. We understand that life is not just light, but is also darkness. That the human experience is not only of joy and discovery and striving, but of horror and suffering.

And sex. In gothic aesthetic, the sex and death frequently go together. Thus the gothic obsession with vampires.

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Some of it is our joy in natural objects. Bones and antlers and skulls are cool. For others, it is about the presumed gloomy/spooky/gothic aesthetic of the gods they revere.

Some of it is recognition that we die, and all who have gone before us did, too: it is a time to reflect on and honor our ancestors.

Sometimes I think people get a bit carried away by it. That said, I’ll take it over pastels and polo shirts any day of the week.

But more than anything, I suspect that what this enthusiasm is really about is a hunger for the intensity of experience. A willingness to confront even pain, even sorrow, even death in order truly to feel in a world that commodifies experience and meets suffering with contempt or saccharine platitudes. To take joy in eerie moods and night chills.

Many of our rituals—at any time of year—are about exactly that: to feel intensely and with authenticity.

So when you see goths—real goths, not just people in “sexy witch” outfits they put together at the Halloween store—see them for more than a morbid subculture.

Their way may not be my way, entirely, but they’re honest about who they are and what they want. They have chosen not to pretend. They have chosen to wear their feelings rather than hide them.

That takes courage. So give them some credit.

And who knows? They might be Pagans, too.